Clerk of Courts candidate sues county commissioners for alleged Sunshine Law breach

Longtime political activist — and current Republican candidate for Portage County Clerk of Courts — Brian Ames is suing the county commissioners for an alleged breach of Ohio’s open meetings laws.

Two Portage County prosecutors say no laws were broken and stated their intent to defend the commissioners.

Open meeting laws, or “Sunshine Laws,” require public officials to “take official action and to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.” Closed door, or executive, sessions can only be held for specific purposes, and the vote to withdraw must be properly recorded in meeting minutes.

On March 26, Ames filed a lawsuit against the Portage County Board of Commissioners in Portage County Common Pleas Court, alleging that on Sept. 14, 2023, commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett did not properly specify the reason behind her motion to retire into executive session beyond saying it was to “consider the purchase of property for public services.”

The Sept. 14, 2023, open session proceedings are recorded on the commissioners’ YouTube page:

However, the approved meeting minutes for that date cited not only the section of Ohio law that permits the public officials to retire behind closed doors, but also referred to another section that the minutes claim allows public officials to discuss property purchases in private “if premature disclosure would give an unfair competitive or bargaining advantage to a person whose personal, private interest is adverse to the general public interest.”

Present in the closed door session were the commissioners, county Director of Airport Operations Robert Hartigan, county Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci and Assistant Prosecutor Chris Meduri.

Ames’ lawsuit states that he informed Meduri on Sept. 20, 2023, that the executive session was illegal. Ames is demanding that the board of commissioners correct the meeting minutes, pay him a $500 civil forfeiture fine and his court costs and attorney fees, and “declare all formal actions that resulted from deliberations in the executive session to be invalid.”

The commissioners corrected the minutes during their regularly scheduled April 11 meeting, unanimously amending them to say only that the commissioners retired behind closed doors “to consider the purchase of property for public purposes” and citing the section of Ohio law that allows them to do so.

Since 2013, Ames estimates he has filed about 15 lawsuits in Portage County Common Pleas Court, and more in other county courts, most of them against various public bodies, and most of those about alleged open meetings law violations.

Six of the cases have wound their way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which on one occasion backed Ames, on two occasions handed him partial wins and on one occasion ordered the appellate court to reconsider its ruling against him. Two more cases are pending.

“There is no plan or reason for the prosecutor’s office to recuse from this latest litigation filed by Mr. Ames, and we see no indication of any criminal wrongdoing by anyone,” Vigluicci wrote in an April 9 email to The Portager. “As you know, Mr. Ames has filed dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits against the county and public officials, and we’ll treat this as just one more.”

If Ames prevails in this latest lawsuit, he says 35 parcels of Shalersville Township land the board of commissions acquired as part of its takeover of the Portage County Regional Airport may be in jeopardy. Meduri said the executive session did not deal with the parcels, but with other property the Portage County Regional Airport Authority held.

While Ames and his Akron attorney Barry Ward await the county’s next legal filing, they are keeping an eye on a July 19, 2023, ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which held that a board “need not establish that a premature disclosure of information would give an unfair competitive advantage before entering into an executive session.”

That case involved a suit filed by Look Ahead America, et. al against the Stark County Board of Elections, et. al., in which the political advocacy group alleged that the BOE violated the open meetings act when it retired into executive session to discuss the purchase of voting machines.

When the trial court dismissed the case, Look Ahead America appealed, only to be thwarted again by the higher court. The case is now headed for the Ohio Supreme Court.

“These courts — the district courts and common pleas courts — like to let public bodies off the hook,” Ames said, anticipating that the high court will follow suit. “They just don’t enforce Sunshine Laws.”

Should the Ohio Supreme Court rule in favor of the Stark County Board of Elections, “my case will be pretty much dead,” Ames said.

+ posts

Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.